Last Friday I went to bed with that scratchy feeling in the back of my throat and woke up Saturday with the full blown crud that I’ve been dodging ever since I heard that first cough somewhere beyond my desk. My guess as to the culprit? Someone at our office Christmas lunch perhaps using a cup they’d already drank out of to get a scoop of fresh ice, thus turning the whole bowl into an ice flow of rhinovirus. Next year I’ll just drink my Diet Dr. Pepper warm.
Besides being too sick to finish my Christmas shopping properly, it also means I was so dazed on cold medicine this week that my first attempt at a Throwback ended when I stepped back and realized I had just written nearly 500 words about that “Hey Vern” guy Ernest P. Worrell and his 1987 film “Ernest Saves Christmas”. (Crumples up notes…throws in trash.)
Let’s start over, shall we? Recently our publisher forwarded me a list of the top toys for each Christmas season going all the way back to the ‘50s. Of course it was nice to see some of the stand-by classics of my ‘80s youth (Transformers, Nintendo) but sheesh, I know you folks back in those super-bad ‘70s were dying for entertainment beyond Foghat, John Davidson or Barbara Mandrell, but it’s still a little hard for me to imagine any time when folks went screaming to the stores to pick up Uno or Connect Four.
I can’t talk too much. Because there it was, under “1986” and buried between those familiar robots and video game systems, something I knew I lost my mind over when Santa deemed me worthy of it one Christmas: “Lazer Tag”, one of those toys that was hot for one glorious year and has since been unfairly tossed away into the maw of time.
This is why I bring to you, breaking my keep-it-in-Mattoon policy for the second time, this Oct. 6, 1988, Kay-Bee Toys ad from the Herald and Review for Worlds of Wonder’s entire line of “Lazer Tag” products. Trust me, I looked both hither and yon for such a thing in our papers, but while “Laser Tag” as a generic concept was mentioned here and there, trusty old “Lazer Tag”, perfectly stylized with a “Z” by those fine folks at Worlds of Wonder, remained wholly absent. Note that the ad says it's discounted from $49.99 to $10, only two years removed from 1986. We'll get there.
And what style it was! That ray gun you see in that ad, trademarked as the “Starlyte,” was a work of art to behold, believe me: Sleek, black, crimson red accent strip running up the sides, it was like a bottle of Drakkar Noir you could shoot lasers out of. And hey, it only needed six double-A batteries to operate, weird when you consider it’s got to be the same technology used in any given remote control of the time. And yes, I did shoot it directly into my eye to see what color, if any, it gave off when you fired it. Answer: green, of course.
The first time “Lazer Tag” hit my holiday radar was when the “old” Walmart location on Richmond had a display for it in their toy section, a huge silver cabinet with the “Starlyte” and “Starsensor” (the electronic target you were supposed to wear) mounted behind darkened Plexiglas that would light up when you’d hit a red button.
Needless to say, I was mesmerized by the possibilities. Turns out those “possibilities” were slightly limited given that I was an only child who didn’t know enough kids my own age to actually play any kind of tag with, let alone of the “Lazer” variety, and the fact that one Lazer Tag “set” came with only one gun and one sensor which meant “playing Lazer tag” for me involved wedging the Starsensor between branches of a tree and trying to pit the ace while speeding by on my trusty Zebra BMX bicycle. Certainly fun and all, but frankly it wasn’t that different than shooting my pellet gun at the upturned plastic Warehouse Sales bucket on top of that mystery pipe in the back yard just past the weenie roast pit. Quite why I never tried strapping the sensor to my cat is beyond me.
But despite the sleek and obviously market-tested ad material you see above, and even a (natch) Saturday Morning Cartoon, the Lazer Tag phenomenon didn’t last too long. Cheap imitators cut into the market base including “Photon,” featured in the movie “Big,” which had even dumber looking helmets, if such a thing was possible, and equipment that was all connected with the same curly-q cords your GTE phone had.
A bigger problem was that, when played by kids, Lazer Tag of any branded variety was always kind of a waste of time. Sure you wanted to live out that dream of stalking your target through a smoke-filled warehouse, laser gun in hand, like hard-nosed sci-fi Private Detective “Tracker Hargraves” (trademark Clint Walker) but what actually would happen was that everyone would shoot at each other at point blank range in a big rotating gaggle of flailing kid-limbs stabbing that elegant Starlyte at each other like an expensive club, and madly pulling the trigger trying to shoot a sensor that was probably being covered by the wearer’s spare hand. That’s not tag! You might as well have just given everybody a bunch of Nerf bats and told them to start wailing on each other until someone falls down.
Lesson? Well, I’d like to tell you that maybe, this close to the big day, we shouldn’t be so obsessed with that “next big gift” given the shelf life of such things, but I can’t tell you I wasn’t freaking elated to rip that wrapping paper and see the steely Lazer Tag logo staring up at me. And now, 30 years later, I’m seriously debating whether or not to fish that Lazer Tag equipment back out of my parents’ attic so I could wear the Starlyte, snug in its included faux leather holster, to work…assuming the included belt and my possibly not-flame-retardant StarVest still fits me. So yeah...maybe a little last-second holiday gift madness was just what the doctor ordered.
Hey Vern! Wouldn’t you know it...I’m feeling better already!